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Musing on Hanukah - Mo's Journal
December 29th, 2005
07:42 am

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Musing on Hanukah
I thought I’d provide a little info on Hanukah, which may be of interest to some readers of this journal. Hanukah is an eight-day Jewish festival beginning on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev. This year Hanukah runs from sundown on the night of December 25, 2005 to sundown January 2, 2006. My family has an annual Hanukah party, and we’re celebrating this year on New Year’s Day, which is the last night of Hanukah. If any of my f-list is in New York, we'd love to have you. Email me for details.

Historical Basis of Hanukah
Hanukah is a minor festival in the Jewish calendar, although you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you go by how American society – both Jewish and non-Jewish – has turned it into the Jewish Christmas. It's a military holiday of a sort, commemorating the Hasmonean revolt against the Seleucid occupation of the land of Israel. Israel had been occupied since the time of Alexander, and Jews had become gradually Hellenized. As far as we can tell, most were pretty happy with that, and found a balance between assimilation and tradition. With Alexander’s death, though, the world empire got carved up and for many years the land now called Israel was a battle ground between the followers of Ptolemy and Seleucus. The Seleucid monarch Antiochus III finally won that battle in 198 BCE.

The Hasmonean revolt took place for a couple decades beginning in 168 BCE, when Antiochus IV, son of the victorious Seleucid mentioned above, issued harsh decrees limiting Jews’ practice of their religion. He outlawed circumcision and observance of the Sabbath – central practices of Judaism – and introduced idols and sacrifice of pigs to the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, thereby defiling it. A religious fanatic named Mattathias (Matityahu in Hebrew) and his five sons led the rebellion, much of which was conducted in what we would now call guerilla warfare. They retook the country, repurified the temple, started the Hasmonean dynasty that lasted for about 75 years and – for a time – rolled back some of the assimilationist tendencies of the Jews living there. The main general of the rebellion was Mattathias’s son Judah, who was known as “Ha Maccabee” (the hammer) for his relentlessness in battle. The family has collectively come to be known as the Maccabees in his honor.

An excellent historical novel that tells the story of the rebellion is My Glorious Brothers by Howard Fast. As he did with Spartacus and April Morning Fast tells a gripping tale populated by very human heroes, and uses it as a vehicle to make points about freedom of expression. I also think that, like his other books, this one is ripe for slash. But that's another story.


Textual Origins of Hanukah
The story of the Hasmonean revolt is told in two books: Maccabees I and II. The books of the Maccabees are part of the group of post-biblical Jewish texts known as the Apocrypha. So, the story of Hanukah is not included in the Jewish Tanakh (bible) although the books of the Maccabees are included in the Catholic bible. Life can be funny that way.

The legend of the miracle of the oil is not told in the books of the Maccabees, but arose later, apparently, and is recorded in the Talmud. The story is that the victorious Maccabees purified the temple, but could find only one small flask of consecrated oil to light the Ner Tamid (eternal light). It would take eight days to get more olive oil, and the flask should only have lasted for one day, so the light would have gone out. Yet, miraculously, the light did not go out and lasted all eight days. That’s why, the story says, we celebrate an eight-day festival at this time of year.


Celebrating Hanukah
Traditional ways to celebrate are:

• Lighting a nine-branched candelabra called a “Hanukiah” or “Menorah” each night, starting with two candles (one for the first night, and the shamash, or “helper” candle, that’s used to light the others) and increasing by one each night, singing blessings specific to the holiday and traditional songs after candle-lighting.

• Playing a game with a special top called a “dreidl” (in Yiddish) or “sivivon” (in Hebrew) that has Hebrew letters on its four sides, standing for “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” - a great miracle happened there. The same letters stand for Yiddish words meaning "all", "half", "none" and "put" and the dreidl game is a gambling one, where you ante up coins or nuts or candies and then depending on the spin of the dreidl the spinner gets to add to his/her hoard or has to put more goodies in the pot. My kids have beautiful silver Israeli dreidls sent to them by my sister who was living in Israel. The last letter is different on Israeli dreidls, because theirs say “A great miracle happened here.”

• Eating foods cooked in oil, to remember the story of the miracle of the oil. Latkes (potato pancakes) are traditional in Ashkenazic households. I’ll be making three kinds for our Hanukah party on Sunday night. We’ll also serve Soufganiyot – jelly donuts – which are the traditional Israeli food.

• Giving “gelt” (Yiddish for money) to children, either in the form of real coins or chocolate ones.


The Jewish Christmas?
What do I mean when I say that Hanukah is a minor holiday and how did it become such a big deal in North America?

First question first. Jews have lots of holidays. That’s sometimes hard for Christians, at least USAmerican Christians, to understand. Theoretically Christians have lots of holidays, too, but outside of a Barbara Pym novel you may never hear of people celebrating Michaelmas or St. Swithin’s Day or whatever. Christmas and Easter seem to be it for most Christians I know. Jews, by contrast, have a number of major holidays where we really devote a lot of time and energy to the holiday – we prepare for them in advance, we don’t go to work on the holiday, kids don’t go to school, we occupy ourselves with holiday activities, be they shul-based or home-based.

Hanukah isn’t one of those holidays. Nobody takes a day off of work for Hanukah. Nobody stops doing anything they ordinarily do. They just do a little something extra in the evening – light candles, sing traditional songs, eat certain foods, play certain games.

So, if you’re trying to think of a holiday to compare Hanukah to, it’s not in any sense the “Jewish Christmas.” It doesn’t have that importance in our calendar. Even though it commemorates a military victory, it’s not even the “Jewish Fourth of July,” really, since that tends to be a day not only for special foods (barbecue) and celebratory activities (fireworks), but also one most people don’t work on. It’s a little more than the “Jewish Groundhog Day” I suppose, but not much more. It’s a holiday that is celebrated by Jews worldwide, but in a very low key way.

Well, low key at most times and places. But since Hanukah often occurs in temporal proximity to Christmas (this year the first night of Hanukah was on December 25, but it can start as early as late November or as late as late December) it has been turned into a bigger deal in largely Christian societies. That has partly been the result of some Jewish parents worrying that their children would feel envious of Christian playmates (hence Hanukah presents). It’s also partly the result – particularly in the U.S. – of Christians wanting to have their cake (or, perhaps, their Christmas pudding) and eat it, too. They want to celebrate Christmas as a national holiday and a universal festival, and at the same time feel that they are not imposing their religion on others, in a country with an Establishment Clause in its Constitution. So Christmas celebrations in the public square and the public schools are “paid for” in a sense with a nod to inclusiveness, by putting up a menorah as well.

Personally, I think celebration of neither religious holiday should be a government activity, but the Supreme Court disagrees with me. I always refused to be the “Hanukah Mom” when my kids were little, just because I didn’t want to contribute to the whole Jewish Christmas meme. I always volunteered to come in later on and do a Purim lesson instead. Purim is also a minor holiday, but one that doesn’t try to compete with any Christian ones, and one kids like because of dressing up in costumes, the food, and the tradition of gift-giving (yes, Virginia, Purim is our gift-giving holiday, not Hanukah). I’ve plum run out of preschoolers and kindergartners, and I’ve got a great Purim Mom routine to share (complete with dramatic telling of the story and baking - and eating - of hamentaschen), so let me know if anyone needs a Purim mom this spring.

Because Hanukah has become the de facto Jewish Christmas in the US, it is one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays in this country. Jews who have almost completely assimilated into American Christian culture sometimes feel the need to do some things in acknowledgement of their heritage. So, they circumcise their sons, they may go to synagogue a couple of times a year on the High Holidays, they attend a seder, and they have a lavish Hanukah celebration replete with presents and decorations. The whirring sound you might hear – if you listen very carefully - at this time of year is the sound of the anti-assimilationist Maccabees spinning in their graves {g}.


And a Joke
A rabbi in NYC, circa 1915, is in despair about how assimilated the American Jewish community has become. He finds himself about to give up and prays to G-d to give him some hope for the future. G-d answers his prayer and (perhaps having read too much Dickens) offers to take him to NYC in 2005 to get a glimpse of American Jewry to Come. It's Hanukkah and everywhere the rabbi looks there are Hanukah decorations, Menorahs in the windows of stores and in public squares, people wishing each other a Happy Hanukah. The rabbi is beside himself with joy and praises the Almighty, saying “I was wrong. Yiddishkeit is not assimilating. If this is how they celebrate as minor a holiday as Hanukah, I can’t even imagine what they do for Shavuos.”

Current Mood: Scholarly
Current Music: Light One Candle
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From:ringthebells
Date:December 29th, 2005 05:54 pm (UTC)
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That was really very interesting!

I knew that Hanukah wasn't one of the major Jewish holidays, but I don't think I realized just how minor it was. Also, I knew vaguely the story about the lamp burning for eight days, but not the rest of the story. Kind of ironic that it's all about fighting assimilation, huh?

If it's any comfort, Christmas isn't even supposed to be the most important Christian holiday. Easter is a much bigger deal, theoretically speaking. I guess Santa Claus just ended up being a lot more charismatic than the Easter Bunny. :)

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From:mofic
Date:December 29th, 2005 08:21 pm (UTC)
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Kind of ironic that it's all about fighting assimilation, huh?
Yeah, pretty funny. Of course it can be about what you want it to be, and maybe the moral of the whole story is that both the complete assimilationists and the radical fundamentalist Maccabees were too extreme.

it's any comfort, Christmas isn't even supposed to be the most important Christian holiday. Easter is a much bigger deal, theoretically speaking. I guess Santa Claus just ended up being a lot more charismatic than the Easter Bunny. :)

Which just goes to point out another factor in all this - much of the Christmas hoopla in North American society isn't really religious at all. It's a holiday celebrated by religious Christians, but also by not-so-religious Christians, by "unchurched" but still Christian-identified people, and by agnostics and atheists who just like Christmas, or who think it's the American thing to do or that "everybody celebrates Christmas."
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From:talktooloose
Date:December 29th, 2005 06:36 pm (UTC)
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And wait until he sees the Macy's Simchat Torah parade!
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From:mofic
Date:December 29th, 2005 08:23 pm (UTC)
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Bwahaha!

USAmerican Thanksgiving is thought to have been based on Sukkot, so you're not so far off.
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From:okami_hu
Date:January 5th, 2006 04:59 pm (UTC)
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That was thorough. ^_^

It is so interesting to see how things match up - a friend and I amused ourselves with an RPG session at Christmas, an X-men AU one. Needless to say, it started out with Magneto angsting over the Christmas tree in the living room, since his twins knew pretty much nothing of Jewish customs and all, and his team didn't even care. Poor Mags pretty much cracked when Wanda and Pietro tried to give him gifts, complaining that Hanukah isn't about the presents... But in the end everything worked out, the twins just wanted to surprise daddy, it had nothing to do with religion, and Mags ended up in his fave armchair, with Wanda in his lap and telling the whole story of Hanukah to his team.

We dug up info about Hanukah ourselves but this description you gave us here is greatly appreciated. ^_^
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From:mofic
Date:January 5th, 2006 05:12 pm (UTC)
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Glad you enjoyed it. I live to serve.
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From:st_crispins
Date:December 15th, 2006 11:00 pm (UTC)
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The dirty secret is that Christmas is, at its core, not even Christian. Jesus ---if He was born at all ---was certainly not born in December. Most likely, it was spring (the shepherds were out with in those fields because of the spring lambs).

But that would have conflicted with Easter which, as someone notes above, was (and within the Church, still is) *the* big holy day.

So early on, the Roman Christians decided to schedule the celebration of Christ's birth with the Roman's Winter Solstice (Saturnalia at that point?)They saw parallels between the return of the Sun and the Son (get it? what kidders!)

Still, for most of Christian history, Christmas was relatively minor. Blame the Germans (the tree and the manager) and then the Victorians, both in England and America. And then, Thomas Nast (for the poem), Coca-Cola (for the modern Santa image) and Macy's (for the extended shopping season).

I do think there is something primal in human society about celebrating *something* around the Winter Solstice and this probably goes back to the dawn of history.

What we have now is really more secular and cultural than religious and that's probably as it should be.
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From:mofic
Date:December 16th, 2006 01:59 pm (UTC)
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You're right that much of USAmerican Christmas celebration is secular. Still, it is a Christian holiday and all of us who are not Christians are subjected to the constant exhortations to "put the Christ back in Christmas" and "Remember the reason for the season" along with Christians. For those of us of other religions, the idea that everybody should celebrate Christmas since it's not just a Christian holiday but a secular one really is oppressive. I'm not saying you are saying that, but I think it's a very common sentiment and it is tied to the idea you espouse - that Christmas is now more secular than religious (therefore me being a Jew shouldn't exempt me from celebrating this "cultural" holiday if I'm a real American). I live in a city with over 2 million Jews yet I experience people dumbfounded every year that I don't celebrate Christmas. It was particularly shocking when my kids were small - the idea that I was "depriving" them of Christmas was more than many could handle.

Regardless of origins (many religious festivals have either origins or customs that come from other religions) and regardless of the history of its importance or lack thereof in Christian celebration, in the here and now Christmas is the major festival of the Christian religion. And more than 70% of the population of the US identifies as Christian. So to my mind it's still a Christian holiday, albeit one that is often celebrated secularly and even celebrated secularly by many non-Christians.

As to the timing of it, yes I think it wasn't just to coopt an existing holiday, but also for the need to celebrate at a time of little light in the Northern Hemisphere. And by making it on 12/25, New Year's Day became a relgious holiday, too - the feast of Christ's Circumcision. Not generally celebrated as such anymore, I understand.
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From:mofic
Date:December 17th, 2006 06:44 pm (UTC)
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Can you tell me more? I don't really watch tv much, but I'm wondering how Hanukah is portrayed. Both in terms of what kinds of programs show Hanukah at all, and what they are showing that led you to believe it was a more major holiday. And do tv programs ever show the major Jewish holidays?
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From:hockeyiris
Date:December 17th, 2008 08:07 pm (UTC)
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We won't even get into the massive confliction I have with my own religion.
For one... I have not talked to you in forever, so Hi there.
For two... this was all really informative. I like reading about other religions.
For three... it's a little OT, but not entirely... there was a Dinner:Impossible recently with the chef having to cook a Passover? meal. I had never really understood Kosher, and still don't entirely, but the Rabbi had been explaining to him about how to tell what was Kosher and what wasn't, and had to inspect everything he bought before he would allow it in the kitchen. He'd been very frustrated because he'd found, I think it was coconut, that was Kosher, but not Passover Kosher. He also did a smoked salmon in place of Gefilte fish.

But it was really interesting to see him get a crash course in the foods allowed and not allowed and then complete a large meal for the temple.
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From:mofic
Date:December 17th, 2008 09:19 pm (UTC)
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Nice to hear from you. Hey, I think you still owe me a character meme thing.

I don't know what Dinner: Impossible is, but Pesach (Passover) has a lot of very specific food restrictions. So Kosher for Passover is well beyond Kosher.

Do you want to say, briefly, what your issues are with your religion?
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From:taffimai
Date:December 18th, 2008 06:44 am (UTC)
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Thanks for writing this. May I link?
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From:mofic
Date:December 18th, 2008 11:50 am (UTC)
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Certainly!
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From:kita0610
Date:December 18th, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC)
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&hearts
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From:cadenzamuse
Date:December 19th, 2008 04:30 am (UTC)
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Hi. I'm not quite sure how I got linked to this, but yay for learning cool things. Also, I grew up Catholic, so it's fun to know that we/they use 1 & 2 Maccabees and the Jewish Scriptural canon doesn't. Funny world.

I wanted to ask your opinion on gift-giving and card-sending. I observe Christmas as a religious holiday, but also as a give-people-stuff-to-make-them-smile-and-then-hang-out-with-family holiday. So I'd love to give gifts to my boss and coworkers, for example, but I hesitate to force someone into the traditions of a holiday that they don't want to observe (clearly, that defeats the goal of making people smile :-P ). Does it make you uncomfortable if your Christian or atheist Christmas-observing friends give you Christmas gifts or send you (non-religious, obviously) cards?

Thanks for this (the help and the article). Religious traditions are cool, aren't they?
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From:mofic
Date:December 19th, 2008 11:56 am (UTC)
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I quite like getting cards and (from close friends) gifts when people are clear that they are sharing their holiday, not expecting that everyone celebrates Christmas. But everybody is different, so why not ask people how they feel about receiving cards and gifts, making clear that you'd just like to share your tradition with them?
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From:kattahj
Date:December 19th, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
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That's a dreidl? I've heard the word without thinking much about what it meant - I have one of those! (Though with Swedish letters for the same words.) Or at least I did as a kid, I'm not sure where it is now. Possibly it's in my "treasure chest".

Now I feel stupid.
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From:mofic
Date:December 20th, 2008 01:27 am (UTC)
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I'd love to see what a Swedish one looks like. So interesting that it has Swedish letters! I thought they had Hebrew letters everywhere.
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From:justhuman
Date:December 21st, 2008 07:06 am (UTC)
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Thanks so much for posting this. It's easy to find information on the holiday, but much harder to come by perspective of people celebrating nowadays.
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From:mofic
Date:December 21st, 2008 10:08 pm (UTC)
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I'm glad you found it interesting. Thanks for reading.
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From:mofic
Date:December 23rd, 2008 06:05 pm (UTC)
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I'm glad you enjoyed it. What led you to leave Mormonism, if I may ask?

I love your lj username, btw.
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